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My Historical Fiction Challenge, an update (Book Reviews for Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowan and The Rose Throne by Mattie Ivie Harrison)

When I was in the 8th grade, my parents received a mysterious letter in the the mail.  I soon would learn it was called a “Progress Report”.  In this particular case, it was reporting the fact that I was not making very good progress in the subject of history.  In fact, I was failing. There was punishment involved. And tears.  Eventually, I passed 8th grade history and went on to pass all other history classes. But a hate affair was history was born.

But this only partially explains my struggles with reading historical fiction.  I am an accidental though not apologetic feminist.  One thing that stood out to me in my travels through the history timeline is how prone we are to treating others different, often less than, ourselves.  And as a woman, it stung to learn that there was a time when my parents may have traded me to a man for a cow in marriage.  For the record the man would have married me, not the cow.  Or that I didn’t have the right to vote.  Or that I couldn’t get my tubes tied to prevent myself from dying in pregnancy without my husband’s permission.  So I came to realize that part of what I struggle with in reading historical fiction is how it (sometimes) romanticizes the past and the subjugation of women (or others).  Not all of it, of course, but there is a tendency in historical fiction to have a romantic bent and, in all honesty, I am not very romantic and I don’t find the oppression of any people group romantic.

BUT . . . last year I read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein which literally knocked my socks off.  See my naked toes wiggle.  Here was a strong, confident, take charge woman rising above the cultural norms. Two of theme even!  And it was just an amazing book.  So this year, I decided to challenge myself and read 5 historical fiction titles.  You can read about that challenge here: Take A Step Back in Time.

So, how am I doing and what do I think? Why, I’m glad you asked.

“themes of empowerment woven into its tapestry of Tudor-set intrigue” – from Between the Covers, on Maid of Secrets

The first title I read was Maid of Secrets by Jenn McGowan.  It is part one of a new series called Maid of Secrets.  When we first Meg, she is part of an acting troupe/gang of thieves.  Interestingly, women couldn’t act in this time period so she is sent out to work the crowd and is a master thief.  Ironically, she is also a great actress.  Meg was awesome because she is very nontraditional; see, for example, master thief.  She is eventually caught and forced to be a spy for the Queen. She is one of many, each of whom have different skills they bring to the table.  There is crossing and double crossing and a threat around every corner.  And sometimes fancy dancing. Also, there is a murderer.  So, as you can see, this was not at all what I was expecting and was a very interesting read.  I thought Meg was a strong female character, there were many others, and there was a lot of nice twists here.  It is a compelling read.  I did have problems tracking some of the characters and their titles, but I am pretty sure that is a reader issue and not a storyteller issue.  I will actually continue to read the series to find out what happens, which is high praise indeed.  This is a must have and I think readers of mysteries and thrillers will be happy reading this title along with historical fiction readers. I give it a 4 out of 5 stars for strong character development, and intricate and thrilling plot, and empowering females while still being realistic to the historical setting.

“There are some secrets worth killing for.  And some deaths that are worth keeping secret.” – Maid of Secrets

Two princesses, two kingdoms, and ancient prophecy . . . 

The second title I read was The Rose Throne by Mette Ivie Harrison.  The first thing you should know is that this is not actually historical fiction, it is fantasy.  But like a lot of fantasy, it has a medieval times sort of feel to it.  Here we meet two princesses from neighboring kingdoms: Ailsbett and Marissa.  They live in a world where men have a certain type of magic and women another, except one of the princesses has no magic in a world that esteems magic more than anything.  Both of these women are forced in various ways to hide their true thoughts and feelings and put in a variety of roles that often make them miserable.  In short, they were forced to be everything I hate about historical fiction, but it IS authentic to what life like that back then would have been (and it is authentic to this fantasy world).  It just makes me ragey (and thankful I was born in the 20th century).  They do grow and make amazing choices, but often at great cost.  I thought that this book was a little slower in its storytelling and incomplete in its world building.  However, my mom borrowed and read the book and she loved it.  It has its charms, for example, I was invested in both the princesses and wanted them to break out of this oppressive life to pursue their passions, but I think it really was a case of wrong reader.  It has 48 reviews on Goodreads with an average rating of 3.29 and I would give it a 2.5 largely in part because I felt it was slow to develop and I would have liked a bit more world building, which may come in the sequels.  Also, the language was a little stilted and formal for me.  My mom, however, would give it a 3.5 and is looking forward to reading more.  I must add, one of the Kings in this story is such a good dad and the other is truly barbaric.  Games of Thrones fans may appreciate another look at Kings and kingdoms wrestling for power.

“I assure you, if I had been in control of myself, I would not have done it.  I would have been safe instead of courageous.” – The Rose Throne

It is interesting to me to even compare the covers.  Maid of Secrets, we see a strong, confident female with her head up and holding a knife.  Everything about her screams power and confidence.  Make no mistake, she is not entirely powerful as she is being held a prisoner by the Queen and forced to serve as a spy, but she has an inner power and confidence that allows her to still have some autonomy.  With The Rose Throne, we see a girl looking down, her head bowed.  One of our princesses, in particular, is very much forced to be in subjugation to the prince that she is betrothed to and his father the king.  In fact, she is in love with another man and must work hard to hide this secret out of fear of what will happen if others learn; It’s a very Romeo and Juliet doomed, star crossed love affair.  So your romantic readers should eat it up (remember, that is so not me.)  And there is romance in Maid of Secrets, so don’t despair.

I have had a lot of teens come in lately and ask for historical fiction.  Demand has been increasing it seems in my area.  Are you seeing the same trend?

Next up, Tarnish by Katherine Longshore.  It comes highly recommended so I am excited.  How about YOU?! What historical fiction have you been loving and why?  Let me know in the comments.


  1. YES! I agree with this entire post 🙂
    I wasn't really into history when I was younger, but around grade 7 my grandpa (who was really into history) started helping me study A LOT for my class. *ahh, I'm already starting to tear up telling this* My passion grew as he made history fun, and would add in anecdotes, etc. I wanted to do well to make him proud of me, but along the way, I truly fell in love with the subject, and I think my passion for it grew exponentially after he passed because it was a connection I had with him. Now, I'm about to graduate with a BA Honors degree in History! I'm really grateful that he instilled this love of history in me.

    Now, my interest/focus area of history is more modern (1800+), except for my interest in indigenous history and culture, and Canadian, and focuses on the history of marginalized people, especially women. I agree — it IS hard to read about how the oppressive policies, actions, and societies treated women, people of color, various sexual identities, etc. But at the same time, I'm drawn to these areas to help ensure that this part of history ISN'T forgotten, romanticized, and not repeated.

    I'm actually re-reading Code Name Verity right now and love it. It's one of those slow-builds, but upon re-reading I can see all the foreshadowing and references and it just makes me want to cry. Was just approved for Rose Under Fire and I can't wait to read it!!

    Maid of Secrets is DEFINITELY on my list — it sounds awesome and I like how it is able to combine historical realism with an empowered female lead.

    I have SO much historical fiction on my list this year, but been in a bit of a reading slump/slow down. Reading Born of Illusion and while it isn't blowing me away, the main character is very competent and can definitely take care of herself. I LOVED Born Wicked last year and analyzed it's feminist and historical context in my review.

  2. Anonymous says

    I love historical fiction or any thing about history. When I read about history or historical fiction I see the struggle of the time and ignorance. What I see is a challenge as not to go back to that way of life. I'm not a feminist or will ever claim to be one. I feel if you have a story to tell and the courage to tell it then say it out loud. Life gives you lemon so make lemonade but history is just that “his story”. So take it with a grain of salt and move on and learn. Lets not keep repeating the same things over but make things better but not at the expense of others.

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